Carl Tennant: Life on the White Nile

Home is where the heart is – A quick shopping trip – The River People – A test of courage

There is along the banks of the White Nile the persistent story
that there is a small fish that is attracted to the clatter of
“water” and the smell of urine. This fish will make for you,
swim up the urine stream as you are relieving yourself into
the river, and lodge itself inside one’s manly part, whence
it will not be moved because of its barbed dorsal and pectoral
fins. Amputation is then the only option, which is a fate neither
I nor my love wishes to think about.

Honestly, Elder Hanad, I understand it. We have to drink
this water, so don’t piss in it. Now tell the crocodiles and
piranha and buffalo and lions and all the other animals that
live here. I am a grown man and do not need to be scared with
fairy tales into behaving myself.

Having said that, though, for now, I am keeping my shorts on
when I am going for a swim.

— Carl Tennant, “My Life with the Ajuru”

It was three months since I said goodbye to my sister Alexandra, and joined Fatin’s tribe. They were called the Ajuru, and they accepted me into their midst as one of their own. My very own sister would probably not have recognised me. Apart from the colour of my skin, the only thing that set me apart from the rest of the tribe was the fact that I was still wearing a pair of boots, and my khaki shorts. I would have expected life here to be extremely hard, and to be hungry and wet all the time, but the camp was actually quite comfortable. Nobody was exactly idle for any length of time, but neither was anyone worked to exhaustion.

With some help from the rest of the men, I constructed a tent for myself, for Fatin, and as soon as he would arrive, for my son. Fatin thought she was bearing a daughter. No matter how many times I told her that the method of dangling a ring over the belly on a piece of string is absolutely infallible, she remained staunchly unconvinced. In her defence, the ring I was using was my seal ring, and not a wedding ring. Marriage as such does not exist in the Ajuru, but couples are unflinchingly loyal to each other.

There were about two dozen people in the Ajuru, which Hanad told me was on the large side, but larger tribes exist. Hanad is the tribe elder, by virtue of his grey hairs and his vast knowledge of the land. He used to be the top hunter in the tribe, but no more. That honour was now with a younger man named Odawaa. Odawaa, to be brutally honest, was completely full of himself. He obviously expected all lesser mortals except Hanad to cower before him. He would have been a totally obnoxious git, if it weren’t for the fact that he had earned his bragging rights several times over. I was allowed to go on a hunt with the rest of the men only twice, and to watch the man move was a revelation. Compared to him, I trudged along like a bull in a china shop, and I am sure we missed prey because of my clumsiness. I vowed that nobody would go hungry because of me, and I practiced walking the forest as the hunters did. I never became as good as they were. That would have taken a lifetime.

Odawaa had a younger brother named Obsiye. He worshipped his older brother, forever trying to live up to Odawaa’s example. Where Odawaa exuded a quiet, almost solemn confidence, Obsiye was all over the place, moving quick as water, never at rest. For some reason, he stayed away from me, and I didn’t understand why. Surely, nobody here felt threatened by me, big bumbling oaf that I was.

I was the tallest man in the tribe, through fortune of birth, and probably the strongest. I had quite recovered from the illness that afflicted me in that cursed camp of Hammond’s expedition. I have nothing more to show for it now than some discoloration of the skin on my chest and face. Fatin told me she didn’t mind. She had seen men much uglier than I am. She was truly the sweetest creature in existence.

I slowly got used to the language. I couldn’t pronounce several of the vowels properly, and my vocabulary was less than that of a child, but the sounds, even the curious clicking ones, soon became more and more familiar. I knew greetings for a single man, a single woman, or a group of people. I could say “thank you” when someone handed me food. My knowledge of East African languages was of very little use to me and I suspect that if I had moved to the next tribe over, I would have had to start all over again.

Fatin was my guide and help in this strange and beautiful land. She was starting to show her condition, and swore she could hear the baby talk to her. She was my teacher in the language and the ways of the Ajuru. I taught her English in return, but only because she asked me, perhaps for the symmetry of me learning Ajuru. Apparently, it is not an uncommon event to have a total stranger enter the tribe and have to learn the language. Professor Enderby told me once that this is an evolutionary trait to keep the population from deteriorating by in-breeding. Well, in that regard, you cannot get blood fresher than mine.

I was sitting in our tent, writing my journal when it started to rain, clattering on the skins just over my head. I closed my journal, and blew out the earthenware oil lamp. Fatin was asleep on the other side of the tent. Our bed was made of sweet-smelling leaves that I still do not know the name of. I have drawn them in my book. It was never cold there, and we didn’t need covers. If there was a cool breeze, we would close the tent door and draw close. When the rain fell, clattered on the roof of our tent, and we lay close together, my hand on her belly, her hand on my thigh, simply listening to the rain, knowing it couldn’t touch us… Words cannot describe how happy I was to be where I was. Who I was with.

Elder Hanad called together all the men, including me. As far as I could understand, there was a need to prepare an especially large meal in a few days’ time, and we needed to go on a hunting trip. All hands on deck, old bean, and tally ho. Odawaa, naturally, was in charge, and we were to hunt for some of the deer that grazed in the open plains. As Odawaa put it, they can hear the grass grow, so everyone, especially pale-faced rhinoceroses, must be careful not to disturb them with unseemly noises. Several of the hunters looked at me. Did Prof. Enderby not say at some point that facial expressions are a universal language? Well, I brought joy to the tribe. Bother them. I’ll bring my rifle. I had to be very careful with my ammunition, but I swore to wipe those smug smirks off their faces by dropping a kudu at five hundred paces. For every kind of prey, there was an appropriate weapon. To bring monkeys down from the tree, they used blow-guns with darts tipped with a poison made from flowers of the Strophantus family, a pretty white flower with long dark cords at the end of its petals. To hunt very large prey, like the African buffalo, they used sturdy stabbing spears, and preferred to use pit traps to immobilize the beast before killing it. The kudu they hunted with bows and arrows. Geedi, one of the hunters, let me try his bow, and from the feel of it, they pulled about sixty to seventy pounds. I would have to make one, because at some point, my bullets would run out. Arrows, by contrast, grow on trees.

All I can say about my first official hunting trip with the Ajuru hunters is that we did eventually get the needed number of kudu, but I am afraid the Great White Hunter made a fine pig’s ear out of it.

We had a half day’s march until we found the herd of kudu. These creatures are like deer, and they have curious spiral-shaped horns on their heads that the tribesmen can turn into a musical instrument called in some places a vuvuzela. They produce a surprisingly loud noise and are used to summon villagers from far around. Two of the hunters were set to watch the herd, while the rest of us made camp and prepared an evening meal of porridge and dried meat. Obsiye was the one to bring the watchers their part. We slept for a few hours, until our watches woke us, a few hours before sunrise. Keeping as quiet as we could, we crept up on the herd with the wind in our faces. Odawaa went in first. I have to admire the way he can move quickly at one point, then suddenly become still as stone, or sway with the gentle motion of the grass. His bow was on his back, a quiver full of arrows by his side. Not shooting yet, only watching, choosing his prey. With a gesture of his fingers, he called his brother Obsiye to him, spoke a few words. I saw Obsiye look at the herd, nod. He came back to us.

“Two does, not yet pregnant. Brown and white markings. Nuune, Geedi. You go round to the right and distract them. Odawaa and I will shoot.” He looked at me. “Kal. Come with me, be quiet.”

Of course.

I followed Obsiye to where Odawaa was crouched behind a few shrubs. He didn’t look round.

“Obsiye, with me. Kal. You stay here.” Even in his language, I could recognise the mocking tone. “You keep the lion from attacking us.”

The hunters crept away, into the dark of the early morning.

I took my rifle from my shoulder, my M4 Garand with a custom sight tipped with luminous paint for use at night. I kept my eyes and ears open, looking for predators who would turn the hunters into the hunted. There weren’t any as far as I could see. I looked up at a noise coming from the right. So did several of the kudu. At that moment, there was the sound of bows, and one of the kudu leapt up, then collapsed with two arrows sticking out of its side. Odawaa’s and Obsiye’s. Later, Odawaa would of course claim that it was his arrow that killed the beast, and Obsiye would know better than to object. It was amazing that the herd didn’t stampede then, but they simply moved away a few hundred yards and continued grazing. They had seen what had happened, and they knew that predators who have just made a kill are no further threat. There is in nature an incredible sense of fatalism. It is no use dwelling on what just happened. There is nothing to be done about it, so you may just as well go on with what you were doing.

Odawaa waved me over, and showed me to grab the beast’s horns to drag it away to where a small group of women were waiting to skin, dress and store the meat of the animal. Fatin was not among them. Kinsi, Odawaa’s wife, was. She gave me a smile and pointed me to where she wanted the kudu. A few of the women turned it on its back and started to work. We, the mighty hunters, turned round and ran back to the herd of kudu.

Odawaa went in front again, followed by Obsiye, Geedi, Nuune and myself. He sneered. The herd had moved to a part of the grassy plain where there was no cover at all. He would have to crawl on his belly, and still run a very large risk of being spotted before he got in range. Arrow range, that is. The Ajuru were about to learn what it meant to have a rifleman with them.

The herd was about four hundred yards away and I adjusted my sight accordingly. This would be an easy shot. I am fairly competent with a rifle at that range, though I am woefully outclassed by my sister Alexandra and her specialist long-range sniper rifle. She could probably shoot a kudu without bothering to get out of bed. But be that as it may, I sat down behind a shrub, and took careful aim at one of the kudu. I concentrated on the spot right behind the shoulder of one of the bucks. Part of the hunter’s ethic is that first, you do not cause any beast unnecessary suffering. Second, when you take the life of another creature you do not waste even a scrap of it. Every part of the beast can be used. Several of the hunters looked at me as though I were mad, but I didn’t let that bother me. They didn’t know the range of a modern rifle. I squeezed the trigger, and scored a perfect hit. The kudu probably never even heard the shot. I looked round at my fellow hunters, who were staring at me with their mouths hanging open.

Odawaa glared at me and shouted a word in the Ajuru language that I didn’t know yet, but will no doubt serve me well next time I drop something heavy on my foot. Next thing he, Obsiye, Geedi and Nuune were running at full speed towards my kudu. Only after a few moments did I have the notion to follow them. I could barely keep up with them, and honestly, I didn’t see the point in running that fast after a dead animal. About fifty yards away from the kudu, all the hunters stopped, staring and muttering under their breath. Odawaa looked round at me.

“You pale-faced idiot!” Odawaa pointed behind him. “Are you going to take it away from them?”

I looked. Three very large lions were looking at us with an expression in their eyes that dared anyone to come here and complain if they wanted. I could shoot them. Somehow, I didn’t think that would go over well with the rest of the men. I buried my head in my hands.

I spent the rest of the day in the company of the women, mainly to do heavy lifting. The hunters came back now and then carrying animals on a pole, I moved them about and the women butchered them at great speed and with great proficiency. At the end of the day, we constructed sleds of long spars of wood and carried our food home. Most of the meat was treated with spices and hung on wooden frames to dry. The best bits were roasted immediately. Fatin wandered over, carrying a few loaves of flatbread, one piece of which she gave to me.

“How did it go?”

Kinsi looked up at the sky, eyes gleaming. “Your man, he has kept the hunters safe from lions. By feeding kudu to the lions.”

Fatin frowned. Kinsi explained. Fatin squeezed her eyes shut, snorting. Then she looked at me, and nearly rolled over laughing.

“It’s not funny!”

Fatin wiped the tears from her face, leaving a big smear of flour. After she took a few deep breaths, she dared to look at me again, and nearly collapsed laughing again. She wrapped her arms round me and rubbed her face on my chest.

“You will be known as Feeder-of-lions. I will tell our daughter that lions eat out of her father’s hands.”

I hugged her back.

“Son,” I said.

Three days after my first hunt, one of the children came running back from the river, shouting in his high pitched voice.

“The river people! The river people are here!”

Elder Hanad came out of his tent wearing a beaded necklace that I knew he only wore on special occasions. He called his hunters to him, and Odawaa, Obsiye, Geedi and Nuune came walking up. Hanad saw me and waved me over.

“You have been on the hunt, Feeder-of-lions,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “Join us.”

We walked the few hundred yards to the river bank. Wise tribe elders do not pitch their tents right on the edge of a river, unless they wish to go for an unplanned midnight swim when the rains are heavy. There had been a lot of rain recently, and the river was fast and deep. Over the rush of the river, we could hear the sound of men singing, carried over the water. A few minutes later, a large canoe came into view, paddled by twelve oarsmen. At the helm stood a man in his early forties, with specks of grey in his hair. He would sing a few words, and the oarsmen would respond in harmony. Now and then, the oarsmen would raise their paddles in the air and clash them together.

The boat was made of a single tree-trunk that must have taken the river people an age to cut down. Flowing lines were carved into its side, and on its bow were mounted the jaws of a monstrously large river crocodile. It was a beautiful craft, well suited to navigating the White Nile.

At a command from the elder of the River-people, the rowers slowed down till the boat was kept level with those standing on the shore. The elder raised his arms, and adressed Elder Hanad in a high clear voice. The language he spoke was vaguely familiar. I could catch the occasional word, but most of it was unknown to me. Elder Hanad mirrored the River People’s Elder’s gesture, then answered in the same voice. Apparently, this was not enough, because the River Elder repeated his question while the rowers patiently kept the boat in the same place. Elder Hanad gestured at the bank, and repeated his answer. The River Elder asked his question a third time, and again, Elder Hanad extended to him the hand of friendship. At that, the boat sped up, veered out onto the river, then turned round and buried itself in the river bank. The frontmost rowers threw ropes to people on the bank, and the boat turned round. The hunters and I joined the people on the ropes and pulled the boat halfway up on the shore. People jumped out of the boat with mallets and long stakes, which they hammered into the ground. The ropes were fastened to the poles and all the River People jumped onto land.

The River Elder walked over to Elder Hanad. With the formalities over, they now greeted each other with hands on each other’s shoulders and happy smiles on their faces. He looked round, and saw me. His face darkened and he pointed his thumb at me. He asked Hanad a question, undoubtedly ‘what is this paleface doing here?’

“Kal? Come here.”

I stepped over. Elder Hanad pointed a hand.

“See, this is Elder Ramaas, leader of the River people, Son of the White Nile, Helmsman of the Great Crocodile.”

I crossed my hands in front of me and bowed to him. Elder Hanad pointed at me.

“See, this is Kal of England.” There was a gleam in his eyes. “Feeder of Lions, of the Far Hunt. He is a new member of our tribe, and you will forgive him not speaking the Lingua Franca of our trade.”

“New member?” Elder Ramaas laughed. “Have you tested his courage yet?”

“I have looked into his eyes,” said Hanad. “I have no doubt. But no, he has not been tested.”

I looked at Elder Hanad, who looked a bit embarrassed. Certainly nobody had ever mentioned a test. I thumped my chest, and bowed my head to Elder Hanad.

“Elder, I am ready for any test you wish me to take.”

Hanad looked from me to Ramaas, then back to me again. He gave a little grunt.

“Then let it be done.”

I stood in front of a large tree. Someone had handed me a stick about as long as my leg. Geedi stood next to me.

“You climb the tree. In the tree is a hornet’s nest. You hit the nest with the stick and then you climb down again. And then you run like the lightning is trying to burn your white butt black.”

I looked up at the tree, then back at Geedi. “That sounds like a really, really stupid thing to do.”

“It is a really stupid thing to do,” said Geedi.

“Does everyone do this?”

“Elder Hanad, shade be upon him, does not like these tests. This is because Elder Hanad and the men of the Ajuru tribes are not stupid. But I have. I joined this tribe when I was travelling. And never left again.” Geedi laughed. “Because the men of this tribe are not stupid.”

“Right. Do you have any advice?”

“Hit only once. Run very fast.”

“They won’t see that as a lack of courage?”

“It is courage to hit the nest. Not hanging around afterwards is a sign of good sense.”

“Right. Let’s do this.”

You do it. Leave me out of it.”

Well, I climbed up the tree. The nest was about twenty feet up in the air. I looked down. I could probably hit the nest, drop down, and make a run for the river. But what if I’d sprain my ankle? I carefully considered the branches below me. Right. Hit, climb down two branches, then drop and run like shit off a shiny shovel.

So that is what I did.

Now one might expect that it would take a bunch of stupid insects a while to find out what was happening, and figure out that it was in fact the strange creature with the stick that was wrecking their home. One would be wrong, and very wrong indeed. Almost before I hit the nest, angry hornets came buzzing out towards me, and I got stung at least twice before I even thought of climbing down. Nothing remained of my careful plans, and I dropped down, luckily landed on both my feet, and ran off in the direction of the river. Members of two African tribes were cheering me on. Hornets, I can tell you, can fly faster than even a white man can run. And of course, once they are on you, you are doing the running for them, leaving them to get on with the important business of stinging. It took me maybe a minute and a half to reach the river, but they were the longest ninety seconds in the world. I recklessly hurled myself into the White Nile’s welcoming water. I grabbed some piece of underwater vegetation and held my breath for as long as I could. Then, I carefully stuck my face up out of the water, half expecting the hungry hornets to pounce on me. They didn’t. I slowly got out of the water, and rejoined my fellow tribesmen, now truly baptised by fire and many, many hornet stings.

It could be worse. I’ve heard of tribes where the initiation test involves hurling yourself out of a tree with only a rope tied to your ankle. Their name is undoubtedly “those with dislocated hips”.

I was welcomed by a kind of weary look from Elder Hanad, and an openly laughing Elder Ramaas, who slapped me on the shoulder. He did, of course, pick a bit with stings on.

“Well done, Lion-feeder Kal.”

“You idiot!”

Fatin stood in front of me, shouting much louder than she needed to. In all my days with her, I’d never seen her as angry as this.

“Why do you do a thing like that? Men have died from hornet stings! Hornets have poison in their stings! If you die, what do I do?”

She grabbed my hand in both of hers and pressed it to her stomach.

“Feel this! This is your child moving! What will she do when she comes out and you are not here because you had to show to the other idiots how stupid you are?”

“Uhh,” I said, never wanting for a clever reply.

“I already know you are brave. Now I know you are also stupid. Stupid!

Fatin turned on her heels and went into our tent. I looked round at Geedi, who had followed the exchange with a little smirk on his face.

“Tonight, my friend, you sleep on the other side of the tent.”

I sneered. “Did that happen to you as well?”

“I had no woman back when I did it,” said Geedi. “But my mother did not let me forget it.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I give this a week or so.”

“Great,” I said. “Do I try to get in the tent?”

Geedi laughed out loud. “That would be braver than hitting the hornet’s nest.” He bent over to me and looked me in the eye. “But nowhere near as stupid.”

Next: Alexandra Tennant: Recovery and Rifles


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